My former Famous Neighbor™ played at Forest National in Brussels last night. For those of you who don't know me in real life, I used to live right around the corner from Mr. Cohen when I lived in Los Angeles. I saw him frequently when I was driving around, but I never worked the nerve to say hello, even though he seemed quite friendly and neighborly.
I grew up listening to his music, and I continued listening to it pretty much all my life, but I'm not a super big fan of his the way I adore John Cale and Scott Walker, mainly because Cohen is primarily a great lyricist* but his music is rather conventional. Nevertheless I like it enough that I was thrilled to be able to see him play in Brussels yesterday, as I had missed his two previous gigs in LA when I was living there.
The venue, Forest National, was sold out, at its maximum capacity of 7,000 people. It is by far once of the crappiest concert venue I have ever attended, very poorly designed and obviously aging.
I had one of the second-cheapest tickets, at 66 euros, meaning I was seating in the Gods, high, high up, but given how the space is designed I'm not sure people who bought premium tickets and were seated on the floor had a much better viewing situation.
In passing, it struck me how easy it would be to fall from the Gods several stories below onto the floor, as the rail was rather low and also too wide, so anybody taking a tumble from the stairs could end up meeting their maker much faster than anticipated. You don't want to bring young children there.
So, as far as safety concerns go, that venue is a bit worrisome, in addition to suffering from very poor ventilation (obviously no AC) and don't expect any type of comfort in the plastic bucket seats that make up all the rows in the bleachers. Nor did the folding chairs they used for premium ticket holders look much more comfortable. One good point was that the sound was really good, a crystal clear mix that really did justice to the music.
The audience was a good mix of several generations from boomers to their grandchildren, and evenly divided between Dutch and French speakers**, as far as I could tell, and it seems to me more of the younger people attending were Dutch-speaking. Everybody seemed determined to have a good time, so Cohen and his band didn't have to work very hard to win them over, but I wish the audience had renounced that silly habit of clapping their hands during the songs, if only because they didn't seem to be able to follow the beat (and they were clapping effing too loud).
The band is rather large, made up of excellent musicians playing everything from the Hammond organ to double bass to violin, acoustic and electric guitar, plus three very good back-up singers. The bass player was very good, for example, the only musician I found just meh was the drummer, but that's because I'm used to seeing fantastic ones like Michael Jerome Moore (who used to play for John Cale, and now mostly plays with Richard Thompson and Michelle Ndgeocello).
The musicians came from all over the world, giving a gipsy-world music vibe to the music. It worked very well for some songs, especially compared to the horrid synths arrangements Cohen used to saddle his 1990s songs with, so The Future sounded extraordinarily good like this. For other songs it didn't work that well, and it would have been nice to have more stripped-down music and intimate feelings sometimes, as all songs ended up sounding like the same blur of bluesy guitar riffs mixed with gipsy violins.
Cohen visibly had tons of fun, making some really hilarious jokes sometimes ("thank you for coming and climbing so high to see me... [gesturing to the rafters]... and for paying so dearly for the privilege"), showing off his "old age" by letting the presets of his little synthesizer play off a silly beat, and sometimes doing a mix between scatting and belching during his musicians solos (on The Darkness).
He played pretty much all of his greatest hits, with Susan, Sisters of Mercy, Tower of Songs, I'm our Man, Bird On A Wire, etc... and surprising me with Hallelujah, because he had declared somewhere there should be a moratorium on playing it and I agree. This is one song where his too big band came in the way of the music, I felt, but on another hand it stripped it from the danger of over-emoting on it like most TV contestants do on talent shows.
Cohen speaks a very good French, what with hailing from Montreal and having children who grew up in France, so he addressed the crowd and sang two songs in my native language, The Partisan (a song from the French resistance that used to make me cry when I was a child) and more surprisingly for me, a classic Québécois song called La Manic. My late father used to sing it very badly during his short-lived hippie phase when I was a child, and it's a song I'd expect to be very obscure outside of French Canada, so hearing it last night was a bit emotional for me. It's a song about blue-collar workers being away from their loved ones while building a dam in the North of the country and being bored to death after their shift, writing love letters to their wives and girlfriends who stayed behind at home. A proletarian love song, so to speak, something that has disappeared from Pop culture as surely has blue collar jobs have vanished from the Western world.
Cohen still has enough energy to sing for 2h30 straight (well there's a 15 minutes intermission in the middle), doing a lot of his singing on his knees, and spending lots of time letting his musicians do solos of the kind that is so good it doesn't feel like showboating. He introduced his musicians by name at least 3 times, then once named every single tech working for him. Nice gesture, that. A funny thing to watch was that each stage hand/tech was wearing a little hat like he does (and I can tell you he wears his suit and his hat all the time, as I saw him in LA in 90ºF heat).
Also from my very high vantage point I could see there was a huge badass clock firmly planted on Cohen's monitor, so he know when to stop for the intermission, when to end the concert, etc. I found that detail very funny.
Overall it was a very good gig, and I'm glad I went, but I didn't have the transcendental experience everybody seems to be describing after going to a Leonard Cohen concert. In the same scale in terms of big crowds and big names, I can say I had a greater, warmer experience seeing Patti Smith (at the Wiltern in LA) or Prince (at the Forum in LA) play, and with lesser-known musicians, Sparks at Royce Hall and John Cale at the same venue were much more rewarding as far as the emotional content went. It's hard to pinpoint why, maybe the venue was not really adapted (people seated and clapping in their hands isn't as much fun as standing up and dancing), though Cohen and his band were warm enough to erase the corporate feel of the place. I'm glad Cohen is still touring and playing and making records, and I'm glad my ticket went toward contributing to his old age pension and his children trust fund, but I think in the future I'll stick with buying his records. On vinyl, of course.
* It struck me again last night how lyrics generally don't really work as poetry outside of music, as Cohen did a little spoken words moment that fell a bit flat to my ears, as the rhyming was a bit too contrived. It would have worked better with music.
**Many of my US friends are always surprised to know that in Belgium, you have Dutch and French speakers living in the same country. In Brussels most everything is bilingual, in the rest of the country it depends on whether you're in Flanders or Wallonia. There's also a German-speaking minority, plus a gaggle of other languages spoken by foreign immigrants. So now you know.